Who to ask for letters of rec?

Forum for the GRE subject test in mathematics.
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Who to ask for letters of rec?

Postby 1mathboy1 » Tue May 19, 2015 2:20 pm

Hi, I'm in a slightly awkward situation because I have very few professors to ask for letters of rec. Here's my story:
I went to college A for 1 year, then transferred to college B. College A is ranked low for math. College B is a top 10 school for math, but because I transferred with a lot of credits, I am expected to graduate in 2 years. So I'm only spending 3 years total in college. I am graduating next year, and applying for grad school this fall.

Here are some Professors I can potentially ask for letters of Rec:

Professor W- during the summer between college A and before starting school in college B, I did an REU at a low ranked college (75th-100th). I did well in the REU, and I wrote a joint paper in combinatorics. But I'm not interested in that field, and the research wasn't very high quality. However, I know that Prof W would write me a strong letter of rec.

Professor X- he's a prof at college B, and is well known in his field. I did a reading course with him (along with some grad students), but I personally felt that the course was going too quickly for me and I did not understand much of what was going on. The way the course worked was that one person gives a talk each week explaining whatever topic we were studying. I did one talk, which (luckily) was relatively easier than the other topics people were covering. Basically, I don't feel like I was as involved in the course as I should have, so I'm not sure what Prof X would write if I asked him for a letter.

Professor Y-he's also a prof at college B, and is well known. I'm technically doing a reading course with him this summer, but since he is really busy I'm actually doing a reading course with a grad student. Should I ask the grad student to write something about me to give to Prof Y, and ask Prof Y to write me a letter of rec?

Professor Z-he's also a prof at college B, but he is younger (assistant prof). I took two (graduate) classes with him, and although he gave me A's, his grading method is pretty lax, and I feel like I don't know as much as I should. I feel stupid around him because when he lectures, he talks as if we are familiar with the topic. The courses I took with him had very difficult material and even now I do not feel confident about it. I am thinking of doing a reading course with him this fall however. I did not ask him yet. If I ask him for a letter of rec, I don't know what he will say. I feel it will be lukewarm.

So the question is, who should I ask? I was originally thinking X,Y,Z, but then I feel like all my recommendations will be lukewarm at best. I would ask W, but he's from a lesser ranked college so im not sure...

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Re: Who to ask for letters of rec?

Postby MathCat » Tue May 19, 2015 3:12 pm

Get letters from people who know you well (hopefully in more than a classroom capacity, but not necessarily required) and will write a strong letter. Don't worry so much about the ranking of the school the person is at. It's better to have a strong letter from somebody they haven't heard of than a "meh" letter from somebody they have, in most cases. It is of course great if you can get a strong letter from a well-known person, but even then, you don't know how the ad comm will view it. You can't predict the personal connections people might have that might give a letter from somebody lesser known more weight. If you prefer, try to get 2 strong letters from lesser known people and one mediocre letter from a well known person to balance it more.

You'll have to decide for yourself, but based on what you said here, I would definitely include W (especially if that is your only research experience - grad schools do want to know if you are capable of research!). Y sounds like a terrible choice to me, as it seems like the prof does not know you at all. I guess by elimination that leaves W, X, Z. Do you have other options of profs who know you well?

When you ask, you might be able to tell from their response how strong their letter would be. Another way to test the waters is to go and discuss grad school with them in general and try to see what kind of things they are suggesting for you. It might give you an idea of how competitive they think you are (which might give some insight into how strong their letter might be).

The reason I think ranking doesn't matter that much is that I'm coming from a low ranked, mostly unheard of school, ranked below 200 in math (and not amongst the top schools in my country). Two of my letter writers were probably unheard of to most of the adcomms (although there was an unexpected personal connection at one place), while the third was from somebody famous here, but not necessarily outside of his field, and I'm not sure how known he is in the US. I believe the first two letters were very strong, and am unsure of the third (I did research with him, but felt like I didn't do very well with it). I got into 6/8 of the programs I applied to, all ranking within the top 30. The ones I didn't get into were top 10 programs.

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Re: Who to ask for letters of rec?

Postby 1mathboy1 » Tue May 19, 2015 3:46 pm

Thanks for the response. The reason I asked about Prof Y is that for some REUs, you mainly work with grad students, and there is a professor or two who oversee the program, but usually do not directly work with the students. I'm pretty sure those participants can still ask those professors for letters of rec, although it would mainly be based on the grad student's evaluation. I'll consider Prof W over Y then.

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Re: Who to ask for letters of rec?

Postby koala » Thu May 21, 2015 2:13 pm

MathCat's response was excellent.

The purpose of LORs is a chance for the graduate committee to get to know who you are and decide if you are capable of doing research. That being said, I think Professor W is a must since he/she will be able to say such things about you.

I would avoid Professor Y because it seems like you don't have a relationship with him. However, the summer may be long enough for you and Professor Y to develop a relationship. In that case I would ask him for a letter.

As for the other two professors (X and Z), you should visit with them and discuss graduate school. Try to develop a relationship with them, and after you have met with them a couple of times then ask if they would write a letter for you.

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